Pitching to Agents

baseballbook-smby Elana Johnson

As a pitch and query editor at Eschler Editing, I know that in-person pitching can inspire fear in the most stoic of individuals (even more than writing queries)! If pitching to an agent or editor gives you the heebie-jeebies, take comfort that you’re not alone, and then take a deep breath and get ready to shake it off. Because if you prepare, you don’t need to fear!

Up first, writing the pitch. Well in advance of the actual event, you should know the guidelines for your pitch—the duration of the session, the length of the pitch, and so on. Those are the parameters within which you’ll work.

In this article, we’re going to talk about writing and preparing a pitch that you’d deliver in person to an agent or editor in a 10-minute pitch session. Elevator pitches one-line pitches, Twitter pitches, and other types of pitches can follow this same formula. See below for hints on tweaking for those formats.

So Let’s Build Your Pitch!

Step One. Write down the following:

  1.  Title
  2.  Genre
  3.  Setting (where)
  4.  Protagonist (who)
  5.  Main Conflict (what)

Books are about someone. And they have stakes. You want to include both in your pitch.

Try to:

  •     Evoke some emotion.
  •     Make your character stand out.
  •     Tell more about your genre without really saying it.
  •     Use as few words as possible.

Step Two. Write down the following:

One vivid detail that makes any of the above elements in Step One different from everything else out there.

This is about making your story different. Think “Who, What, Where, and Why Should I Care?” It’s this last part that you’re focusing on here. Why should an agent care about your setting, protag or main conflict? What makes them different? 

Agents/editors read a lot of slush. They hear a lot of pitches at conferences. Why is yours special? That’s what you’re aiming to say here.

Step Three. Answer three questions:

  1.  What is the barrier between the main character (MC) and what he or she wants?
  2.  Who is the villain? What is the BIGGEST thing the villain is keeping from the MC that prevents the MC from overcoming the conflict?
  3.  Does the MC have any special abilities (doesn’t have to be paranormal) that MUST be mentioned?

Answering these questions helps identify the uniqueness of your character and the inherent stakes in your plot. Both are essential to a pitch, no matter its length.

Step Four. Write down three “big” words—evocative words—that relate to your story.

You’re only going to use one of these, and you’re going to put it in the last sentence of your pitch. It’s essentially your curve ball—the thing that makes an agent/editor say, “I need to read your full, stat.”

Step Five. Set a timer for 5 minutes and write:

A one-paragraph pitch for your novel using the information you’ve collected in steps 1–4. In the last sentence, use one of your three “big” words to finish the pitch. This is a cliffhanger pitch. You’re not giving a synopsis of the book. You’re dangling a carrot, enticing the agent or editor to ask for more.

It’s important to note here that the pitch should be about 5 sentences, or about 125 words.

Putting It into Practice—the Example

Okay—here’s an example of how it’s done. We’re going to write a pitch based on the movie How to Train Your Dragon, following the steps above.

One sentence from steps one and two: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (title) takes place on the island of Berk, where fifteen-year-old Hiccup (who) lives with his tribe of bloodthirsty Vikings—but he can’t bear to deliver the fatal blow to a dragon (something interesting/unique/vivid—and to make it even better, it’s the conflict).

Three sentences that convey the conflict and stakes from the three questions you answered in step three: Hiccup wants to impress his dad (the “wall”)—the tribe’s chief (more conflict)—with his dragon-slaying talents, so he enrolls in dragon training (bigger “wall”).

Every morning he wields a mace and shield, while sneaking off in the afternoons to play with the Night Fury he’s befriended.

Eventually his weapons are replaced with games, as he learns that dragons aren’t the monsters he’s been brought up to believe (minefield of conflict).

A final sentence from step four that has your “big word” and cliffhanger curve ball: Using his quirky sense of loyalty, Hiccup has one shot to prove himself and set a new course for the future of the entire tribe.

That’s it. Something you can easily memorize and recite in a couple of minutes. Make it snappy. Push yourself to write some awesome sentences. And stop at a point that makes the agent or editor have to know more.

Now’s the time to edit your pitch for length if you’re preparing an elevator pitch, a one-line pitch, or a Twitter pitch. See if you can take out the three middle sentences, leaving just your first and last. You might need to do some tweaking, combining, or rearranging. But at least you’ll have a base from which to work. Remember, all pitches should convey a unique MC who has a unique conflict with high stakes.

Step Six. Practice.

Practice in front of the mirror. In the car on the way to work. With a friend at critique group. Over the phone to your mom. Practice. Practice. Practice. You’re going to practice the pitch so much that you’ll have it memorized—which is the goal.

Whew! You’ve written and practiced your pitch.

Next, you’ll prepare for the actual session.

Preparing for the Live Session—a Few Tips:

  1. Level the playing field. An agent or editor doesn’t hold the key to your entire future happiness or your self-esteem. You weren’t hoping to marry everybody you ever had a date with, and finding the right agent is just the same. You’re both just looking for a good fit. Remember, the agent or editor is just a person. You’re a person. The agent/editor likes watching reruns of Seinfeld. So do you! Shake off the rejection anxiety.
  2. Play to win. Research the agent. Know what the agent is looking for, what the agent has sold, and so on. You’ve written, memorized, and practiced your pitch. You’ve got this.
  3. Act like the star player. Basically, this is a “fake it till you make it” statement. I’m telling you to pretend. Nervous? Pretend you’re not. Act confident. Act happy and friendly. Smile. Ask them how they are. If they’re enjoying the conference. Act calm, cool, and collected. Act like you’re exactly who they want writing books for them—because you are!
  4. Leave time at the end for the agent or editor to talk. Realistically, introducing yourself, settling into the pitch, and pitching should take 3-4 minutes. In a 10-minute session, that leaves plenty of time for you and the agent/editor to talk more about your work.

While a request for the full manuscript is nice, it shouldn’t be your only goal. If you can get an agent or editor to give you feedback about your pitch—which is really feedback about your book—that’s a win.

Now go write your pitch!

Do This Now

  1.  Take out a piece of paper and identify three things: your MC, what the MC wants most, and what is standing between the MC and that desired goal.
  2.  Now write down what makes that unique.
  3.  Identify at least three “big” words that can go into your cliffhanger sentence.
  4.  Start practicing by writing three different versions of a pitch that would work for your book. Run them by us if you want feedback.  
  5. If you’re still nervous (you, a writer, an introvert or highly sensitive?), you’ll definitely want to check out our companion article on introvert-pitching strategies.

Your Thoughts—Have you done an effective pitch—or one that was a disaster? What tip above will you use next time?

If you thought this was useful, please share the love!

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  1. Adrianne

    Whew! While I have yet to complete my manuscript, I am consumed with dread at the idea of pitching my hypothetical book to an agent. The words “pitch session” in an advertisement for a writers conference put my guts into a knot. I know I’ll have to do this one day. Thanks for demystifying the whole thing! By breaking it down, and by giving us an idea of what to expect on that far-off day, you’ve (once again) significantly minimized the dread. Ask me again when I get there, though. . .

  2. Bruce

    Awesome insights! I had Elana help me with my pitch and it was exactly what I needed. I got my dream agent!

  3. Michele

    Love it. This article is clear and concise, and yet detailed enough to help me really understand how to best pitch to an agent. Takes a lot of the nervousness out, having a great strategy! Thanks, Elana!


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